Thrive Not Just Survive

My sister works in private banking.  One of the clients in her office is an old woman who uses a walker. She is Jewish and has a heavy European accent. She is old and bent over but always looks smashing. Her hair, her clothes, her make-up….always perfect, always elegant.

A week or so ago, this woman’s son came into the bank and chatted with my sister. He told her who his mother is and that he had some banking to do. My sister asked him about his mother. His mother is 85 years old. She is from Poland. When Katie asked him when his mother had immigrated to the U.S., he told her “after the war”.

Wince. A Polish Jew, born in 1928 who arrived in the U.S. after WWII.

This woman, I will call her T, went to Birkenau, the Nazi Concentration Camp for women at the age of 13. Birkenau was part of the Auschwitz system of camps and when Birkenau became “over-crowded”, T was one of the prisoners moved to another part of Auschwitz. She met her husband there, when she was just 15 years old. They had the first of two children (the man my sister was talking to) in a camp for displaced persons after the death camps were liberated by the Allies.

Prior to WWII, there were about 3.3 million Jews in Poland. About 300,000 survived.

Eventually the couple came to the U.S. with $30. T’s husband got a job with a painting company and painted houses.  They bought real estate. They raised their kids. They lived out their lives together. A few years ago, at the husband’s funeral, his son gave the eulogy and said, “My father was not a “survivor”, he was a “thriver”. ”

It is easy to live a life of “quiet desperation“. We are all scarred, some more deeply and painfully than others. Some are still young and life hasn’t taken its pound of flesh yet but it will. If you reach, let’s say my age, 48 and you haven’t been roughed up a bit, then you are not engaging in this life.

The scars cannot define us.

The Holocaust, Birkenau, Auschwitz, the fading numbers tattooed on their arms did not define these people. Their work and their love and their children and their faith defined them. They not only survived horrors most of us will never know, they moved on and thrived. We all have this in us, even when we despair, when we think there is no good on this earth. We have the possibility, we have the chance to do more than survive. We have the opportunity to make something big or small out of this life. And it would be a sin, a shame, a waste to not leave this place without leaving our own personal, imperfect, cherished mark on it.

Life can be very short. Life can be very long. It’s never what we planned or ordered it to be. But while we are here, let us thrive.

48 replies to “Thrive Not Just Survive

  1. Beautiful post, Maggie. Here’s to thriving — I love the way you’ve expressed this: And it would be a sin, a shame, a waste to not leave this place without leaving our own personal, imperfect, cherished mark on it.

    Perfect — thank you.

    1. Thank you Brigitte, that mean a lot to me coming from you. I often think that I don’t write enough, that I don’t write the way you do but i have to accept that it’s okay and we each have our own styles 🙂 But fyi, you inspire my writing.

  2. Thanks for this post, Maggie. I have a friend who needs to read this right now….I’ll be forwarding the link. We all need inspiration and motivation to thrive our very best.

  3. We never ask for half of what life throws at us …. but the truth is, as you know, it’s not what “happens” to us, it’s how we let what happens affect us. If I’d have let the “crap” that’s occurred in and around my life get to me, I’d have jumped off the end of the pier by now. But there’s really no reason to let that happen. We can grow stronger by dealing with those experiences head on and forging past them. As my dad used to always tell me, s*** happens, we just need to pull up our socks and keep on walking.
    I like Ms. T !!!!

  4. I always say that living well is the best revenge. For all the horrors and hardships these resilient people endured, in thriving, and living well, they lead the way for the rest of us. Thanks for sharing, Maggie. Beautifully said! xoxoM

  5. Excellent post, Maggie. Your quote, “the scars cannot define us,” is so true. When I was a tween, we lived next door to a family whose mother had been in Auschwitz. I would go over and listen to her stories, in her broken English, of her family “before the war.” I would always hug her before I left hoping to hear more stories soon. She would always say goodbye and go live life to the fullest.

    1. That is a great story. You should write about that. I’m so glad you listened to her stories. I once went to an Anne Frank exhibit and lecture and met a woman who was an Auschwitz survivor. I never forgot seeing the number on her arm and what it felt like to shake her hand.

  6. This was exceptional, Maggie. What a beautiful post. When you hear stories like that it puts everything in perspective. We have ONE life, is there any question that we should be thriving?
    Did you ever see the movie Harold and Maud? It’s off the beaten path, but the character, Maud, is a concentration camp survivor who befriends a trouble young man and teaches him to make the most of every minute, of every day. It’s really a wonderful message. Maybe it takes that kind of struggle and experience to wake that part of us up? Here’s to leaving the very best mark on this place! (That actually makes me teary.)

    Well done, Mags. xoxox

    1. I have never seen Harold and Maud in its entirety but I’m going to now. I didn’t know she was a concentration camp survivor….Ruth Gordon, right? I got teary writing this. Thanks as ever my friend

  7. Thanks so much for sharing this Maggie. I believe everyone has a story worth knowing/sharing but this tale of resilience is both moving and inspiring..makes my own ‘first world’ problems seem small.

    You write so well friend 🙂

    1. Thank you Annie. Um, I don’t know that your problems are all “first world”. I’m going to cut you some slack on that one!

      It’s a great story, so easy to write.

      1. Thanks..yeah didn’t express that well. I just don’t want to make it all about me when I read things like that 🙂 Obviously I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through what she did..but I wish for the resilience you know? x

  8. A home run of a post Maggie. One of my friend’s parents were in that same camp then, too. After the war ended, they married, and had my friend in Hungary in 1946, before moving to the US. Her dad died about then years ago. Her mom last April. My friend now regrets not having a photograph of that faded tattoo. Her mother’s death and this post about T. makes me think about how the numbers of survivors are dwindling and how there are people that like to deny the Holocaust ever happened.

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